On the wild side—December, 2012
by Tina Mitchell
Standing 3 – 4 feet tall and weighing up to 16 pounds, a Wild Turkey—the bird, not the bourbon—presents few challenges for identification.
At first glance, it appears dark overall. But in the bright light, you’ll notice a subtle bronze iridescence in many of its feathers. Its body is long and humped-looking; its neck, long and thin; and its naked head, amusingly small. Despite its size, though, an adult turkey can be fleet of foot, running up to 25 miles per hour, and strong of wing, flying up to 50 miles per hour. (The above Wikimedia Commons photo shows a mixed-sex flock.)
Turkeys forage primarily in flocks on the ground during the day and roost in trees at night. Birds flying into roost trees can create quite a ruckus, cracking limbs and breaking branches en route to nighttime perches. Although acorns are a favorite food, turkeys can be quite opportunistic eaters. Their diet consists mostly of plant material such as leaves, seeds, grains, and berries. But they also eat insects, spiders, and the occasional small reptile or amphibian. In late summer, these birds sometimes feed side by side in an advancing line, crossing a field to flush grasshoppers. Quite a sight!
As breeding season nears, the mixed-sex flocks of winter break into smaller same-sex groups. Turkeys do not defend specific territories, since males fight for breeding opportunities rather than for real estate per se. Courtship, including the male’s well-known “gobble” call, begins in April. A male fluffs his feathers, fans his tail peacock-style, and drops his wings as he and any other males in the vicinity strut their stuff for the ladies, rattling their wing feathers and making interesting humming sounds. One male will mate with several females if they’ll have him, but he plays no role in raising the next generation. The nest is a shallow depression, lined with a few pieces of grass or leaves. The hen incubates a clutch of 10 – 15 eggs for 25 – 31 days. When a chick (called a “poult”) starts to break open the egg shell, the hen makes a soft clucking sound, imprinting her voice as a warning call in its brain. The downy poults leave the nest soon after hatching and mature quickly. By week 2, they can fly short distances; by week 3, they can fly to a low tree branch. Immature males leave the brood hen in late fall or early winter; first-year females, beginning in late March.
Known in scientific circles as Meleagris gallapavo, all aspects of the Wild Turkey’s various names reflect confusions and superficial similarities to other birds. The genus namederives from the Greek word for the guinea fowl (meleagris) of Africa, which taxonomists thought the turkey resembled. The species name comesfrom Latin gallus (a rooster) and pavo (peacock)—again, because the folks assigning names thought the turkey resembled these birds too. Finally, the common name of “turkey” reflects the fact that the guinea fowl at that time was also called a turkey, since people erroneously thought it came from Turkey. Ay, ay, ay—what a mess!
Male turkeys are called “toms” or “gobblers,” after their familiar mating call. The U.S. has many landmarks honoring gobblers. Probably the most famous, Gobbler’s Knob, lies just outside Punxsutawney, PA, where Punxsutawney Phil emerges each Groundhog Day to check for his shadow. But enter “gobblers knob, fremont county” into a search engine and you’ll find Gobblers Knob (no possessive case, unfortunately) just east of Coaldale, on the south side of US 50—probably in the area of the massive February, 2011 rockfall. Anybody out there have any ideas of the origins of that name? Let me know if you do—I’d be really interested.
Compared side by side, differences abound between Wild Turkeys and those domesticated turkeys that are raised en masse for the dinner table. A Wild Turkeyissleek, alert, and built for speed. Its constant state of heightened awareness makes it one of the toughest game animals to hunt—or even to capture in a quick photo. In sharp contrast, domesticated turkeys have been bred to have much larger breasts than their wild cousins; the birds weigh about twice as much as Wild Turkeys do. Many domesticated turkeys have white feathers, to prevent skin coloration, while their wild counterparts sport dark plumage that helps them disappear into woodland surroundings. Domestic turkeys can’t run very fast and can’t even fly at all. Who among us remembers the classic episode of WKRP in Cincinnati where, in an ill-fated Thanksgiving advertising effort, domesticated turkeys were shoved from a helicopter flying over the city, with reporter Les Nessman covering the event on the ground, wailing, “Oh, the humanity…!” If only the Station Manager had known just a bit more about domesticated turkeys…
To learn more about the Wild Turkey, click here.